What we know about Atlanta, Georgia is that it’s the hot spot for young black professionals looking to make it big. Home to several reality shows like Love and Hip Hop Atlanta and Real Housewives of Atlanta, there’s a sense of opulence that’s sought in the Georgia capital. But it’s important not to forget the rich history and legacy of the city is deeply rooted in the Civil Rights Movement. Despite advancements in race relations and a black president, there are still areas that need great improvement.
One such area is voter registration in communities of color for people between the ages of 18 – 29, also known as the Rising American Electorate. As the population has increased over the last decade in Georgia, this demographic’s participation at the polls hasn’t; with sixty-two percent of the RAE being of voting age, only 53% are actually registered. So what’s to be done about these low numbers?
The New Georgia Project is on a mission to address the population’s registration disparities. Founded by Representative Stacey Abrams, who just also happens to be the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly, and the first African American to lead in the House of Representatives, and directed by Nse Ufot, the New Georgia Project gives voters permission and the tools to use their voice in politics.
In this week’s Stop Asking For Permission, I had the opportunity to speak with fellow member of the Black Girl Magic clique, Nse Ufot, the Executive Director of the New Georgia Project. And here’s what she had to say about how she’s leading this movement.
By 2025, Georgia will be the first state in the deep south to have 50% or more of its population be people of color. That number by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into power.
What inspired you to get involved with the New Georgia Project?
I’m from Georgia. I grew up in Atlanta. Being asked by Stacey Abrams, Founder of the New Georgia Project, to be a part of this was a big deal. Atlanta has a strong legacy of civil rights organizing. We are working to connect that with the modern day challenges that communities of color face on the ground. African Americans and Latinos are underserved, and their values are not being represented in the legislature. We are never going to see change if we don’t get them involved. We have to build lasting power that extends beyond the election cycle.
Some would say that black people don’t vote, do you think that’s true?
We don’t vote at the levels that we should. Not voting is an option. Not voting is also a vote. We want the underrepresented communities to be represented. Georgia has a rapidly growing population. The most conservative estimates show that by 2025, Georgia will be the first state in the deep south to have 50% or more of its population be people of color. That number by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into power. We have learned from talking to many people that they don’t trust politicians, and what we are saying is that voters have the power to fire politicians who don’t represent their interest or share their values. Withdrawal is an option but it has consequences.
What is the value you see in voting in local elections?
Local elections are as important if not more important than presidential elections. Local elected officials are required to live in, and have direct ties to your communities. From how your local tax dollars are spent, to schools, roads, bridges, public safety, minimum wages, to the cleanliness of the water you use to drink, cook, and bathe, local elections matter. We want people to understand the areas they live in and the powers of the mayor, or what their city council actually does. We want people to realize that this is where many federal candidates get their start. We want young people to know about city council so that they can run. We want to see young people running for city council and other offices.
How have you managed to organize around local elections to get millennials to register to vote?
We first and foremost hire young people to register voters and do other civic engagement work. Second, we have the Advocates for Change Institute, a five week civic engagement, community organizing boot camp to get millennials, people of color, and the unengaged, to understand why voting matters. We cover why local elections matter, the power of storytelling and media advocacy, effective grassroots lobbying, community organizing 101, and identifying local issues that matter. It’s a deliberate process that makes participants focus on the local issues they want to see changed and learn who in local government is in charge of changing that — whether it be potholes or other issues. We help participants put together a personal advocacy plan to get that done. It’s important that we start with issues and build from there. Francys Johnson, President of the Georgia NAACP, often says “We don’t have permanent friends or permanent enemies, we have permanent issues.” The New Georgia Project has found that focusing on the issues articulated by millennials and people of color, and connecting them to voting and other forms of civic engagement has been effective for us.
For those not in Georgia, how can they start a project that mirrors this one to get millenials engaged and registered to vote?
It begins and ends with data for us. You need to know your state. For example, we know that there are 800,000 African Americans in Georgia eligible to vote and unregistered. It takes much less than that to win any election in Georgia. We are focusing on how to get them registered, and what will encourage them to vote regularly. Working in coalitions is important. Identifying your lane and what role you can play is important because everyone can serve. You need to be clear with your priorities. Demography doesn’t automatically mean destiny. Population shift alone doesn’t lead to change or liberation or laws that take into account the needs of communities of color. So you need to look at how your city or state is changing. We recognize elections as an opportunity to talk to people about issues that matter. 2020 is a census year. Start talking about why the census is important. Understand the ways in which miscounting hurts black communities. You need to recognize organizing opportunities as they present themselves and seize them. Be radically honest with yourself and your team about where you are and where you want to go. At the New Georgia Project we believe in ourselves, we believe in each other, we believe in our vision for a better Georgia, a New South, and we are not asking for permission. We are the one who we’ve been waiting for.
As Ufot is hard at work changing the political landscape in Georgia, we can all take a few pointers from her and apply them in our own cities and states. Most of all, we should be like Ufot and stop asking for permission.